Meat puddings should be served between the months of September and April; during the months without an “R” in them meat pies should replace them.
– LE VICOMTE DE MAUDUIT
Meat puddings and meat pies. And then there is rappie pie. Or sometimes referred to as rapture pie. Derived from the French “patates râpées”, this Acadian pie is simply named after grated potatoes.
There are two questions that can easily be asked about a potato: what is it, and why is it? Or at least these are two questions M.F.K. Fisher thinks could easily be asked about a potato (Love in a Dish 17). And while there are dictionaries, encyclopedias, farmers and myriad blogs, books and articles that can answer the first question, it is the second which might bring pause to the way we look at this ubiquitous vegetable. But what’s worse in attempting to answer why a potato is, is the realization that we take its waltz on our kitchen tables for granted. The story of potato, the sound it waltzes to, is of brave names (Love in a Dish 17). It is a story of starvation. And of overcoming starvation.
That cooking any food other than a potato had become a lost art. Women hardly boiled anything but potatoes. The oven had become unknown after the introduction of the potato prior to the Great Starvation.
It is a story involving a famine. The potato’s story involves being driven out of your home. And land. It’s a story on bravery.
Its story permeates Nova Scotia, along the rocky Clare shore between Yarmouth and Digby. The potato was there when the French-speaking Acadians returned to Canada after being forced off of it in the first place; it was there in rappie pie. And while the exact origin of rappie pie is unclear, it is in the potato that we find why Acadians might have devised the recipe for rappie pie. It is the story of the potato and our relationship with each other through it. It is the brave story of the potato which gives rappie pie meaning.
To make rappie pie, finely grated potatoes are squeezed dry in a cheesecloth. By hand.
The result is mixed with chicken broth and layered onto a dish with pieces of the same chicken. The pie is then placed in the oven and slowly baked for several hours – until it is golden brown and crusty on the outside, and oddly gooey on the inside. Thick. Gray. And gelatin-like on the inside.
Recipe adopted from Out of Old Nova Scotia Kitchens
12 pounds of potato
2 chickens, 3 to 3 1/2 pounds each
2 to 3 large onions
Salt and pepper to taste
Poultry seasoning, or any other spice you desire for your chicken
Cook your chicken in a large pot with onions. It’s important to cook the chicken before you start working with the potatoes. The juice of the meat will be hot and ready for use when the potatoes have been ridden of their starch.
And so the chicken slowly cooks in water and mingled with onions. In the meantime, peel potatoes and soak them in cold water so they stay white. Squeezing the juice out of the potatoes by hand is a process spanning several hours and so it’s important to keep the remaining potatoes fresh while we work our way through them.
Cookbooks. They reflect shifts in our edibility boundaries. They curate culinary processes and the logic of meals. The existence of cookbooks presupposes not only some degree of literacy, but often an effort to standardize the regime of the kitchen — to publicize particular traditions guiding the journey of food from market place to kitchen to table (Food and Culture 18). Language and literacy, cities and ethnicity, women and domesticity, all are examples of issues that lie behind a cookbook — behind its measurements and its methods.
While travelling through Halifax I had the opportunity to cook rappie pie with an Acadian grandmother. She told me she would spend her weekend afternoons squeezing the juice out of potatoes — by hand.
She was able to find a grater in her basement which she mentioned was used in later years to grate the potatoes.
After the grating process, the potato would go through the following device where the starch would be stripped out of it.
She didn’t use any tools though. She spent her afternoons squeezing the starch out by hand. She did this alongside her sister. And mother. And grandmother.
Today you can go to a grocery store in Atlantic Canada and buy pre-starched potato in a bag. Or use the spin cycle on your washing machine to extract the liquid. The making of rappie pie is already becoming less social. The story of the potato is already becoming a tragedy — out of a plastic bag.
When potatoes are all squeezed, loosen them in a large pan, and add the broth from the pot the chicken was cooked in, gradually. The broth’s warmth will cook the squeezed potato paste.
Adding chicken broth to the potato is no easy task. It has to be just the right amount. There is no formula. There is no easy way of knowing what that right amount is except for making rappie pie — over and over. Year after year. The only way to know how much broth to add is to learn the language of your food.
If not enough broth is added, you’ll be left with a rock solid pie — hard to eat and hard to digest. If too much broth is added, the pie will be too soft, not being able to stand on its own.
Adding the right amount of broth will require experience. You’ll have to be able to feel the texture of the potato. Read how it moves as you stir your spoon, mixing it. It is in this processes that we witness the active participation of the potato in the cooking of rappie pie. A relationship is formed between the cook and the ingredient. This is a relationship that can only be formed outside of any cookbook. It can only be formed if we accept the potatoes active participation in the process and if we listen to it.
We add the chicken broth in. Little by little. Stirring it into our potato paste, and listening to it.
When enough broth has been added, we pour the potato mixture into a pan and cover with a layer of our chicken, picked into small pieces.
Once covered with a layer of chicken, we pour the rest of the potato on top.
The pie is placed in the oven, preheated to 400 F, and left there to its own devices for almost three hours. You’ll know your pie is ready when the top of the pie is golden and crusty.
Origins of rappie pie are unclear. But we can ask: “why is the potato squeezed — by hand?”
Almost all people, whether they are grandmothers or not, have practiced certain forms of economy in their day. When resources are scarce, at times of hardship, things like rice or potatoes or spaghetti or any of the starches are cooked enough for two meals instead of one (The Art of Eating 202). Enough is cooked to feed many people at once. And food is cooked in such a way so that the least amount of resources get used in its preparation.
The potatoes of rappie pie are not baked. They are not boiled. No heat is used in preparing them. They are squeezed by hand and later mixed with the chicken broth which includes chicken fat. No butter or additional oil is used in the making of this dish.
Once out of the oven, this pie can easily be cut into pieces and wrapped up to accompany us to work. It doesn’t need to be re-heated.
Once eaten is keeps us full for a long time.
He was fortunate that his chosen way to keep alive agreed with his guts, if not completely with his gourmet instincts. The woman who fed her family cooked starch for five months was perhaps equally lucky; at least she kept them alive, which is supposed to mean heaven for true mothers.
And just like what M.F.K. Fisher says here about our cooking choices at times requiring thirftiness, we look to the story of the potato.
The origins of rappie pie are unclear, but how the potato is used in this recipe might provide some insight into the conditions during which this recipe was constructed. How the potato is used brings to light the relationship we form with the food we cook.
The origins of rappie pie are unclear and cookbooks only provide instruction on cooking it, but asking “why is a potato?” gives us a glimpse into the story of rappie pie.
The grandmother we cooked with served her rappie pie with mustard pickle. But that’s a story for another post.
Counihan, Carole, and Esterik Penny Van. Food and Culture: A Reader. New York and London: Routledge, 2008. Print.
Fisher, M. F. K., and Anne Zimmerman. Love in a Dish: And Other Culinary Delights. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2011. Print.
Fisher, M. F.K., and James A. Beard. The Art of Eating. New Jersey: Wiley, 2004. Print.